I attended two Passover Seders last week. One I led for a large group of New Mexican church-going Christians. The other was in the home of my Jewish kid brother and our religiously, ethnically diverse gathering of family and friends. The first one was designed to highlight the Jewishness of Jesus. The second one was designed to raise issues of societal injustice. Both relevant emphases for a Seder.
Even with their different focus and attendees, I was reminded of the meta message of a Seder. Any religion worth its salt must re-invent itself from time to time.
The Passover Seder as we know it now didn’t exist in Jesus’ day. Jewish as he was, he wouldn’t have eaten charoses mixed with horseradish sandwiched between 2 pieces of matzah. He wouldn’t have invited the youngest disciple to chant 4 questions. He definitely wouldn’t have hidden an afikomen.
Here’s what he would have done: recited blessings over a paschal lamb. Blessed matzah and wine. Sung hymns. Most of which is noted in the various accounts of the Last Supper or Seder.
Why the difference? When Jesus was alive, the Temple still stood. That meant that the Jewish form of worship was sacrifice-centric. Leviticus 23 gives ancient instructions on how to observe these holy days.
Less than 40 years later after Jesus died and was resurrected, that whole system of sacrifices was gone, destroyed along with the Temple. Judaism had to reinvent itself—in a hurry. And it was the Pharisees to whom that task fell.
Of the 4 parties that existed at Jesus’ time—Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots and Essenes—only the Pharisees survived much beyond the fall of Jerusalem. Sadducees, whose members were tasked with Temple duties, disappeared—their services no longer needed. Zealots, with their penchant for stirring up trouble, are credited by historians for hastening the destruction of the holy city. Their remains were scattered among the charred rubble of Jerusalem. Essenes, who didn’t believe much in reproduction, simply died out. That left the Pharisees. It was their creative intellectual, theological and ethical genius from which Rabbinic Judaism sprang. Rabbinic Judaism provided the template from which today’s many Judaisms have flowered.
The Pharisaical emphasis on right action rather than right belief, and their ability to thrive under oppressive circumstances served them well on many accounts. Especially when it came to their biggest project yet–reinventing Judaism in the face of a world that no longer existed, and a religious system that could no longer function. Once the sacrificial system was gone, they figured out how Judaism might live on. They reinvented religion—while holding the core of it in place—one God, and a people dedicated to the service of that God.
Judaism is famous for reinventing itself over the millennia. But they are not the only ones.
At many critical junctures, Christianity has had to do the same. When Jesus didn’t return right away—Christianity had to take a new path without a living leader. When Constantine converted to Christianity and it became the dominant religion of the Empire–it again reinvented itself. And once again at the behest of Martin Luther’s demand for transparency and accountability. Each church split has signaled a kind of reinvention.
We’re not done reinventing ourselves, either. Twisted experiences from the Crusades and frontier America have caused most churches to drop coercive evangelism. We have re-invented the way we read scripture. Most Protestant denominations now welcome divorced people, female leadership and women clergy. We haven’t worried about wearing mixed fibers for a long time.
Even as our structures and hermeneutics have changed, so have our ecclesiologies. We have already begun moving away from a clergy- and cathedral-centric expression of faith. Trained laity, house churches, experimental missional and other “weird” faith communities are taking root.
While our central tenets remain the same—and people of good faith will disagree about which tenets belong in this list, but here’s mine—God is love; Jesus Christ is God incarnate; The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand; We are Kingdom people—the way we live those out has changed radically. Rather than see these changes as a weakening of the faith or unholy compromises with culture, perhaps its time to see them as part of the natural evolution of a religion that has staying power.
After all, reinventing religion is the very process by which Christianity arose. As I demonstrate in The Jew Named Jesus, Jesus was a Jew through and through. That means the religion of Jesus was Judaism. The religion about Jesus, however, is Christianity. It will be interesting to see how this process of reinvention continues to evolve as we meet the realities of a changing world, expanded knowledge, and unfolding opportunities.